Manisha Koirala at the JLF


by AMIT ROY

BOLLYWOOD actress Manisha Koirala, the star of such films as 1942: A Love Story, Bombay and Di Se, spoke movingly about her battle with cancer when she appeared at the Jaipur Literary Festival (JLF) at the British Library in London last Sunday (16).

She has given a detailed account of her illness in her book, Healed: How cancer gave me a new life (published by Penguin Random House India), but the Darbar Theatre at the British Library was silent as Manisha described how her life changed dramatically when she
was diagnosed with “late stage ovarian cancer” in 2012.

Manisha was born in Kathmandu into one of Nepal’s most prominent political families on August 16, 1970, but instead she chose a career in Bombay’s film industry where she rose to become one of Bollywood’s most sought-after stars.

With Nasreen Munni Kabir, the journalist and author, sitting beside her, Manisha talked to Sanjoy K Roy, managing director of Team Works, the arts organisation that runs JLF.

Manisha, who admitted she started taking her success for granted, said she was forced to reassess her life after the cancer diagnosis.

“One of the most shocking and most profound experiences for me has been my cancer diagnosis,” she confessed.

“What it really compelled me to do was to reflect and be authentic. You can’t sugar-coat things, you can’t lie to yourself, you really have to be honest and face it.

“Things started becoming clear to me and I realised how marvellous, how gifted my life was – I got such a beautiful career break, with beautiful, wonderful directors and great co-actors, such marvellous chances I had in my life, and how slowly I had started taking
it for granted.

“And when I was facing death, I said, if I get a second chance in life what different things
would I do, how differently would I live?

“That’s the time I said I need to be more grateful. I need to be more mindful. I need to be more appreciative and I need to work harder.”

She had reached the height of her fame. “And then you fell ill?” Sanjoy prompted her.

She had not been keeping well, when she had a bizarre encounter with mother and daughter “Aboriginal healers” from New Zealand. They held their hands over her stomach as the younger woman pronounced: “You are very angry with your ovaries – your ovaries are red hot.”

Manisha said: “Six-seven months down the line I had ovarian cancer.”

The diagnosis came towards the end of 2012 when she was back with her family in Kathmandu. She recalled a day in hospital crammed with CT scans, biopsies and other tests – “that was probably the longest day of my life”.

She remembered the moment when her family doctor came into her room with her parents, aunts and uncles and other relatives present.

Her doctor had tears in his eyes as he said: “Manisha, there is treatment for this now.”

Manisha was bewildered: “Treatment? What is he talking about? ‘What do I have doctor?’

Then he finally said: ‘It seems you have cancer.’ I really did not know how to respond or what to think. I was stunned.”

She thought back to films she had seen and said: “Why don’t you cut it out and
throw it as away?”

Her aunt, a gynaecologist, did not want to mislead her niece and said: “‘How to cut
it away, Manisha. It has spread.’”

A second opinion in Mumbai confirmed the bad news. Manisha’s family and doctors decided
to send for treatment at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. At this point, Sanjoy said she was full of hope she would survive.

Manisha replied with characteristic honesty; “There were times when there was no hope.
There were times when I was filled with fear and pain. My doctors in New York felt ‘you can do it’; my nurses constantly kept on telling me, ‘it’s tough, but you can do it.’

“After my surgery when I met my surgeon, I asked him about the possibility of me surviving. The surgery was actually 11 hours, but it was successful.

“When I gained consciousness, I asked him, ‘Doctor, will I live for five years?’ He said, ‘‘Look, I can’t tell you. I hadn’t realised your cancer had spread so much. Until I see how you respond to the treatment, I can’t really tell you.’

“I was hopeful, but I also felt there was no hope. I had to wait for a couple of treatments of chemo.”

The time came when her doctor finally pronounced, “’You are cancer free now, but you have to wait for three years because normally this type of cancer can recur within three years. And there is a 90 per cent chance it will recur.’”

Manisha continued with her tale: “So three years after being cancer free when I went to my
doctor again and asked, ‘Doctor, can I live now?’ he said, ‘Manisha, it has to be 10 years.’”

Manisha decided at this stage to take a new direction in life: “That’s when I decided how long will I live with fear? I am going to take life by the horns and I am going to live it. If I have to go, I will make peace with my death. But I am not willing to live with fear.

“I don’t know how long I will live – one, two, five, six, seven, 10, 25 years, I don’t care how many years I get to live. (But) I am going to do my best, I am going to put my best foot forward and I am going to live a good life.”

Manisha has resumed making films.